Refugees and Forced Migrants: Distracting debates in terminology

On this blog, I refer to Syrians who have fled their homes and have sought asylum in Lebanon and Jordan as ‘refugees’. Since the refugee crisis washed up on Europe’s shores over the Spring and Summer of 2015, the Western media has tussled over appropriate terms – which mirrors a fairly well-worn debate in refugee studies. If you like to get your teeth into some good academic starter texts about the politics of labelling refugees and the politics of ‘refugees’ vs ‘forced migration’, I’ve included some links (Some of these texts are available for free on the web, apologies, but not all of them will be). Zetter, (1991, 2007); Hathaway (2007), Chimini (1998; 2009).

This is not a debate that is easily explained or remedied over a short blog post. It touches onto a myriad of extremely complex and highly charged topics, including the concept of the nation state, foreign intervention, racism and fear of the ‘other’ alongside basic human compassion and rights and responsibilities. So, for the purposes of this post, I will merely outline why I use the term ‘refugee’.

For me ‘Forced Migrant’ is not at all a term I would use to describe the Syrians fleeing their homes and settling in other countries. I often feel that the term is unsteady ground to a slippery slope. Merely including the term ‘migrant’ in defining someone who was forced from their home in the dead of night fleeing Isis, bombing, or conscription – gives an illusion of choice. It immediately allows people to associate a Christian Syriac family who had the ‘N’ for Nazarene painted on the door by Daesh – with my family: Migrants from South Africa to the United Kingdom, who had options, savings and rights.  Saying ‘Forced Migrant’ allows a wider audience to roll their eyes at you and say ‘Well, they are still a migrant’.  The term does not have enough power behind it to express the complexities of what it means to be forced from your home. And it rarely evokes understanding or sympathy from Western audiences – which is sorely needed.

There is a larger debate (and fear) going on, behind the crisis, about ‘people on the move’, the growing mass of populations moving from their nation state to someplace ‘safer’. Reading the UNHCR 1951 declaration on refugees, which was written with WWII European refugees in mind, it is clear that the term would do well to be revisited, debated and redefined. I don’t have solutions – but I do think something needs to be done to address not just the refugee crisis, but to discuss the large numbers of people desperately seeking new lives in different countries. Let us not forget that it is our government that decides whether there is a ‘refugee crisis’ or not and who should be defined as a refugee – and they have countless political reasons behind those decisions. Let us also not forget that most of the world’s refugees live in protracted situations in extremely impoverished countries, with little to no human rights, and we see little and hear little of these situations.

In time, I may well find that my opinions change. But for now and the foreseeable, I won’t be talking about the Syrian women that were smuggled over the border into Lebanon after their houses were bombed and their children were threatened and who now live in a one room dwelling with 9 other people as a ‘forced migrant’, and I daresay you shouldn’t either.



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